Nicaragua, Land of Poets

By Gema Santamaría

To my mom, Yelbita Balmaceda Vivas

(06.24.1950 – 01.28.2019)


On July 19, 2019, Nicaragua commemorates the 40th anniversary of what is considered to be one of the last and greatest social revolutions of Latin America’s 20th century: the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990). In accordance with the tradition inaugurated by the great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío (1867-1916), during the months leading up to the uprising and during the years that followed the revolutionary triumph, Nicaraguans turned to poetry to celebrate the end of the Somoza dynasty and what they envisioned would be a new era of social, cultural and political transformations. Poetry acquired a popular and social character, and poets of both sexes composed and read collectively verses that spoke of a new patria libre in which men and women could exercise their rights as citizens within a truly sovereign and egalitarian country.

Photo by Jeyner Josue Sequeira Martinez, youth of Solentiname under the direction of Tiago Genoveze

The story of the Sandinista Revolution’s demise is well known. A civil war divided the country, and a U.S.-sponsored counter-revolution, together with a debilitated governing elite, contributed to undermine the promises and possibilities of social and political change. Nicaragua’s truncated transition to democracy, together with a series of structural adjustments during the 1990s, gave rise to a period marked by economic inequality, corruption, weak institutions and political divisions. Just as in its neighbouring countries, Nicaragua entered a period of profound democratic disenchantment.

The return of former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega to the presidency in 2007 benefited from, and contributed to, this democratic disenchantment. A populist who uses both coercion and co-optation to maintain his power, Daniel Ortega continues to utilize his former anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric but has now become a firm promoter and beneficiary of the neoliberal policies that have had a huge impact on the lower and middle sectors of society. He has furthermore dismantled the country’s already weakened democratic institutions in a steady and dramatic manner. In April 2018, a series of protests that quickly spiralled into more radical and revolutionary demands were brutally repressed by both state and paramilitary forces. Ortega’s use of brute force against students and young people left a deep mark in the Nicaraguan people, including former and current Sandinistas. In spite of an incipient process of dialogue between opposition forces and Ortega’s government, social activists, journalists and other public figures continue to be harassed, supressed and forced to exile.

Today, as yesterday, Nicaraguans have turned to poetry in order to articulate their aspirations and desires for a free Nicaragua. Political dissent might be provisionally silenced, but poetry will continue to speak the words of hope and change our country so badly needs.

Photo courtesy of Gema Santamaría


Gema Santamaría is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Loyola University, Chicago. Her research focuses on questions of violence, justice and the rule of law in Latin America. She was born in 1979, the year of the revolution, in Managua, Nicaragua. She is the author of Piel de Poesía (Managua-México, 400 Elefantes-Opción, 2002), Antídoto para una mujer trágica (México, Mezcalero Brothers, 2007) and Transversa (México, Proyecto Literal, 2009). Her work has been translated to English, Portuguese, French, and German.  She edited, together with poets Lauri García Dueñas and Jocelyn Pantoja, the poetry anthology Apresurada cicatriz: instantáneas de poesía centroamericana (México, Proyecto Literal, 2013). She is a member of the Nicaraguan Association for Women Writers (ANIDE).